It’s time for a new approach to improving sleep that moves beyond sharing information on sleep hygiene. To truly combat our society’s sleep crisis we need to change our messaging, improve education, stop relying on gimmicks, and account for the changes in our lives from COVID-19.

It’s been years since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared sleep deprivation a public health epidemic. In this time, people have generally become more aware of sleep hygiene as well as the consequences of lack of sleep, yet the problem is only getting worse.

A New Approach to Improving Sleep: Advice from an Expert

Part of the issue may be the way this information is communicated, says sleep expert and university professor Dr. Cary Brown. The reality is, many people might not have the option to get eight hours of sleep per night.

Then, when they are exposed to a constant barrage of gloomy messaging about how bad this is, they become more stressed and in turn sleep more poorly.

“We can’t make people feel bad if they can’t do anything about it,” says Brown, whose research focuses on non-pharmacological sleep interventions.

People need to do what works for them. If someone only has time for five hours of sleep per night, then the focus needs to be on making those the best five hours possible, not on the risks of sleeping this amount.

The key is positive messaging. There are certain things everyone can do to improve their sleep, regardless of how much they get.

Nowadays many people are working irregular hours, especially due to the pandemic. This not only disrupts their sleep schedules, it also prevents them from maintaining healthy routines that help with sleep quality.

Improving Sleep During COVID-19

Taking a few steps from bed to their desks and not going outside to commute from work to home at day’s end poses many challenges. First, having “transition time” between work and home is vital to maintaining work-life balance and mental wellness.

But, it also deprives people of the chance to get some natural daylight exposure, something essential for keeping our circadian rhythm in sync.

In this area, Brown says, people with dogs and children have fared better during COVID-19. Caring for pets and children necessitates a certain degree of routine that includes spending time outside.

The pandemic has also posed some unexpected challenges. With people moving around cities less, urban noise pollution has dropped off considerably.

While this might sound like a good thing for our sleep, losing this consistent level of noise makes one-off loud sounds much more disruptive.

When we hear these noises, even during sleep, we become more alert and stressed due to our innate threat response.

Using a fan in your room or playing white noise from an app is the perfect example of an easy solution to drowning out some of these “breakthrough” noises.

Avoiding Sleep Gimmicks

For those with new or worsening sleep problems, a common reaction is to search for purchasable solutions in the web. Unfortunately, many of these things found in online stores are mere gimmicks with little or even detrimental effects on sleep.

Buying these items or resorting to substances is not the answer, says Brown. Instead, we need to understand the “why” behind why sleep the way we do and the “why” behind the importance of things like sleep hygiene.

It’s not as simple as telling people not to use phones before bed, but rather informing them what using screens does to their bodies.

Similarly, it’s not just that eight hours of sleep is optimal, it’s that we need REM sleep, which occurs most in the last few hours of the night.

Not getting enough REM impacts mood, memory formation and decreases overall brain function.

What we need is better sleep education in public school health classes and accessible wellness education opportunities for adults.

Fortunately, says Brown, “we’re seeing a generation that is more aware of work-life balance.” Mantras heard commonly in previous decades such as “sleep when you are dead” have gone the way of the VCR and rightfully so.

Brown points out that more successful and productive people tend to value sleep. You just can’t function on the same level without it.

Taking Control of Sleep

At EWI Works, we have a very strong and practical understanding of how sleep intersects with our ability to perform our work and keep up with our home lives.

We recognize that people need to do what works for them and took that mindset into designing our latest science-backed wellness education module, Taking Control of Sleep: A Course for Understanding and Improving Your Sleep.

After just 20 minutes you’ll come away with a deeper understanding of what sleep is, how it works, and, most importantly, how to make yours the best it can be.

Register here! Happy snoozing!

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